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Bolivia threatens U.S. Embassy closing after Snowden search

QUITO, Ecuador — Bolivia threatened to close the U.S. Embassy as presidents from across the region met to show solidarity with President Evo Morales after the global manhunt for fugitive Edward Snowden diverted his flight.

“We don’t need them, we’ve got other allies,” Morales, 53, said Thursday at an emergency summit of Latin American leaders in the highland Bolivian city of Cochabamba. “We don’t need the pretext of cooperation and diplomatic relations so that they can come and spy on us.”

Presidents from Argentina, Ecuador, Suriname, Uruguay and Venezuela met with Morales to demand Spain, France, Portugal and Italy apologize and explain why they denied the Bolivian leader’s presidential jet permission to fly through their airspace July 2. Spain’s Foreign Minister said his government was told Snowden was aboard. The incident led the plane to make an emergency landing in Vienna after a fuel gauge stopped working correctly, Morales said.

The group called for a new meeting of South American presidents on July 12 in Montevideo, Uruguay, to discuss further retaliation against the European countries for the “flagrant violation” of international law, according to a statement read by Bolivia’s Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca at the end of Thursday’s meeting. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Chile’s Sebastian Pinera, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Peru’s Ollanta Humala skipped the summit.

“This constitutes an extraordinary, unfriendly and hostile act,” Choquehuanca said in comments carried live by Telesur. “The injustice suffered by President Evo Morales offends not only Bolivia, but all of our nations.”

U.S. relations with Bolivia have been problematic since Morales was elected in 2005. The president expelled the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg in 2008. Goldberg hasn’t been replaced.

On May 1, Bolivia kicked out the U.S. Agency for International Development, alleging that it had conspired against the government.

In the latest incident, Morales said speculation he was helping Snowden flee Russia on his plane after a Moscow conference led the European countries to deny him permission to stop and refuel. The leader never spoke with Snowden while he was in Russia and the former National Security Agency contractor is not on Bolivian territory, he said.

The president was able to fly back to South America after winning a promise that his plane would not be searched in Spain’s Canary Islands while refueling, said Ricardo Martínez, a Bolivian diplomat in Austria.

Snowden revealed himself last month as the source of leaks on top-secret U.S. National Security Agency programs and remains in limbo at an airport in Moscow. Facing theft and espionage charges, Snowden has sought asylum in 20 countries, according to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks. Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua are among countries saying they haven’t ruled out granting Snowden asylum.

Failing to allow Morales’s plane to fly through the European countries’ airspace threatened the security of the people on board, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Thursday on its website. The actions of authorities in France, Spain and Portugal were “hardly friendly,” the ministry said.

France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Laurent Fabius, apologized to his Bolivian counterpart for the delay in granting Morales’ plane permission to fly over French territory, according to a statement published July 3 on the ministry’s website.

“There had, of course, never been any intention of refusing President Morales’ plane access to our airspace,” the ministry said in the statement. “The authorization to fly over French territory was granted as soon as the French authorities had been informed that the aircraft in question was that of President Morales.”

Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Garcia-Margallo contradicted France’s explanation, saying today that Morales was denied permission to pass through the European countries’ territory after their governments received reports that he was helping Snowden flee Russia.

“They told it was clear, that he was inside,” Garcia-Margallo said in an interview on Spanish state television, without saying who provided the information. “The reaction of all the countries in Europe that took measures, rightly or wrongly, was on the basis that the information provided was that that would happen.”

U.S. officials have contacted countries Snowden might approach for asylum or pass through on the way to a third country to provide “reasons why Mr. Snowden should be returned to the United States and face charges,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said July 3 in Washington.

Uruguay’s President Jose Mujica, a former Tupamaro guerrilla who spent 14 years in prison, said the refusal to allow Morales’ plane to fly over the countries’ territory was an error.

“To be kind, they screwed up,” Mujica said Thursday. “This is an embarrassment.”

With assistance from Ben Sills in Madrid.

© 2013, Bloomberg News

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